How to train for a marathon: fitness, nutrition and motivation
Looking for a challenge or fine-tuning your technique? Our marathon training plan will help you get motivated, increase stamina and prevent injury
Gruelling marathons make goal-specific training, optimum nutrition, mental preparation and injury prevention of paramount importance. Following these simple techniques will help you train and maximise your performance on the day.
A good marathon training plan should combine your running schedule with a sensible eating plan to optimise your health and fitness levels. Include all three main food groups in each meal: protein, carbohydrates and fats. Choose carbs that are low in refined sugar – think brown pasta, rice and bread, as well as bulgar wheat and porridge oats. These will release sugar slowly into your bloodstream and prevent spikes and slumps in energy levels. Protein is important in the building and repairing of bones, muscle tissue, cartilage and skin. Lean meat, eggs, fish, tofu, are good protein options that are low in saturated fat (the bad fat, normally derived from animals). Eat Omega-3 and 6 fats, normally found in nuts, seeds and oily fish as these will help you store energy, insulate the body and protect the vital organs.
Ditch processed foods, fizzy drinks and caffeine, which play havoc with your blood sugar levels and will impair your energy levels.
Train smart: Now is the time to focus on getting the most out of every training session. If you’re doing sprints, sprint hard. Face hills with vigour, and when embarking on slow runs, keep within your specified training zone. Do your long runs (most do a maximum of 22 miles before the big day) at a pace that you can maintain as this will make your recovery much quicker. Start tapering your runs to shorter distances and less intensity about three weeks before Race Day to prevent fatigue and to ensure your best performance on the day. Incorporate at least one rest day per week. Rest days are when the muscles repair and strengthen.
Vary the theme: Add core strength, resistance training, and HIIT to your training schedule to maintain stability and posture during your run as well as to build muscle mass to help provide momentum and prevent injury.
Stretching: One of the most common mistakes in long-distance running training is to focus predominantly on the exercise rather than on the stretching. As muscles get stronger through training, they tend to tighten and shorten, which will restrict overall range of motion and make you susceptible to injury. Focused stretching is an effective way to condition your muscles, tendons and ligaments. Try these simple stretches at least three times a week.
- Hamstring stretch: Lie on your back with one leg flat on the ground. Raise the other leg in a straight position, and clasp your hands around it behind the knee. Pull this outstretched leg gently towards you to a point where you can feel the stretch but no pain. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds.
- Quad stretch: Stand upright near a closed door, with one hand loosely holding the door knob to balance you. Bend the leg furthest from the door at the knee and take hold of the foot in your free hand. Gently pull your foot towards your glutes, feeling the stretch in the front of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds or more.
- Calf stretch: Stand on the bottom step of the stairs with your heels overlapping the edge so that you are balanced on the ball of your foot. Push down with your heels and feel the stretch run up the back of your lower leg. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds or more.
Overtraining: Many people underestimate the dangers of overtraining. No training guide will stop you getting injured. You must listen to your body – it will tell you its limits. If you feel fatigued, dehydrated, feel restless at night, or become irritable and low in mood, the chances are you may be overdoing it. Don’t be afraid of taking your foot off the pedal for a few days. Rest days are as important as training days.
The number of rest days to training days will vary according to experience of runner and what suits them mentally and physically, but most people opt for a minimum of one rest day a week to a maximum of three.
For a healthy boost to morale, run with some ‘marathon buddies’. Or, in the absence of running pals, distract yourself with an audio-book, music, or motivational podcasts – a good one is ‘Marathon Training Academy’.
Yoga, meditation and breathing exercises are powerful antidotes to a punishing training schedule. Yoga will not only help you to develop core strength, but will also help with flexibility. Its focus on restorative breathing and meditation will enhance relaxation and lead to better quality sleep.
Think positive, visualise the excitement of the day and focus on the charity you are supporting, who they help and why they do it. It will help to keep you inspired. A marathon is possibly the best weight loss programme you can undertake, which is a significant motivator for some.
Wear appropriate clothing: However confident you are as a runner, restrain yourself from donning fancy-dress. A ‘Rupert the Bear’ or ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ outfit may seem a bit of a laugh in the pub a few days before, but you may well live to regret it on the day.
Wear layers of breathable clothing, which absorb moisture from the skin and can be discarded along the way. Make sure your trainers are fit for purpose and at least two to three weeks old to ensure comfort. Use Vaseline for sensitive areas and consider wearing a heart monitor to avoid overexertion early in the race.
Other useful accessories for the day include a tracking device, often provided by the organisers of the day, to ensure your friends can access your whereabouts on their iPhone; an easy to carry water bottle; good quality, well fitted headphones for those that opt for music to carry them through the day, rather than the enthusiasm of the crowd. Don’t forget to slather on the sun cream, whether it’s sunny when you set out or not – we live in England after all, and the weather can turn on a sixpence.
Pre-race meal: Plan your pre-race meal carefully. Marathons usually start in the morning so enjoy a balanced breakfast. Some runners will be happy to munch on a banana and smoked salmon bagel, others will opt for the full McCoy – a traditional cooked English breakfast. A good healthy option would be a bowl of porridge with fruit, followed by boiled eggs with rye bread. The most important thing is not to try any new foods on the day and don’t overload. Nobody wants to run with the runs or feel the bloat. Snacks and gels will be available at aid stations along the way.
Keep hydrated: Manage your hydration before, during and after the race. Avoid caffeine the morning of the race and don’t over hydrate at the start of the race – it will make for unnecessary comfort breaks before you even get into your stride. Make use of the aid stations for water and electrolytes (you should practise drinking on the run before race day.)
Effective cool down: For injury prevention make sure you summon the energy for appropriate stretching. See the above stretches for hamstrings, quads and calves. Parts of your body may feel sore after your gruelling achievement so use ice packs on the relevant areas to cool any inflammation and alternate with heat gels and hot balms. If you have the chance of a post run massage, take it – it will pay dividends. Look forward to a soothing bath or shower with essential oils in the evening to soothe and restore your tired body and mind.
Don’t be surprised if the real muscle soreness sets in two days after the event – this is quite normal and known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). It may be worth taking a couple of days off work after the event.
Inspiration moving forward: Completing a marathon is a monumental feat and may inspire you to look at alternative
challenges that will help maintain fitness and wellbeing. Try shorter runs, cross country runs, interesting cycle rides, or the 26-mile night time London MoonWalk. Try interspersing these training and charity challenges with drop-ins to ‘alternative’ exercise classes in the metropolis (boxercise, aerial yoga, suspension sessions), to keep your fitness routine interesting and varied. Or consider a
detox spa in the summer to maintain the momentum of healthy eating.
Whether running a marathon is a once in a lifetime pursuit or something that becomes regular, always take sensible precautions pre, during, and post the run to help prevent injury and reap the fitness rewards.